Book Reviews


Aldo van Eyck: Writings (Volume 1: The Child, the City and the Artist; Volume 2: Collected Articles and Other Writings 1947-1998)

Edited by Vincent Ligtelijn and Francis Strauven. Amsterdam: SUN Publishers, 2008.

Every so often, one discovers a seemingly esoteric publication which, upon closer examination, becomes a veritable treasure trove of information. Aldo van Eyck (1918-1998) was a Dutch architect who believed that writing was as important as designing buildings. Initially designing hundreds of children’s playgrounds after the Second World War, he later joined CIAM in 1947, dedicating his life to the pursuit of a more humane architecture while rejecting the production-oriented functionalism contained within the concepts of Modernist thinking. Through his writings, he would eventually develop theories relating to identity, the in-between, place and occasion, reciprocity and twin phenomena.

If we can put aside our 21st-century cynicism for a moment, reading through this wonderfully illustrated two-volume set (accompanied by a DVD of a lecture he gave in Delft in 1967) is both comforting and inspiring. Van Eyck’s writings constitute a considerable palimpsest to the architectural history and theory of the 1960s.

The first volume is entitled The Child, the City and the Artist, and it is based on a series of courses that van Eyck gave at the University of Pennsylvania in 1960 and which led to the creation of an unpublished manuscript in 1962. For the first time, the book has been published in its entirety and the essays are indispensable reading for any- one seeking to understand the energy, optimism and thoughts constituting van Eyck’s view of the city. The second volume, entitled Collected Articles and Other Writings 1947-1998, covers a wide range of subjects such as the De Stijl period; the fragility of preserving ancient buildings like Angkor Wat; the dynamics of slums; Sandy van Ginkel’s plan for Expo ’67; and the importance of pueblos or the architecture contained within the African settlements throughout the Dogon in Mali. But van Eyck was not stuck in the 1960s. His 1984 essay entitled “Symmetry from the Bright Side” and his 1987 lecture “The Circle and the Centre” both allow us to appreciate the merits of balance and composition while eschewing saccharine historicisms associated with Postmodernism. This ambitious collection of Aldo van Eyck’s writings clearly represents a labour of love for both the publisher and the editors. Anyone willing to sit down and enter the headspace of this very ambitious and humane architect will emerge enlightened and considerably delighted. IC

The Endless City: The Urban Age Project by the London School of Economics and Seutscha Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society

Edited by Ricky Burdett and Deyen Sudjic. London: Phaidon, 2008.

Although poverty, migration and constrained living conditions have been concerns for inhabitants, planners and politicians since the concept of the city was born 5,000 years ago, contemporary cities are distinguished by the very thing that makes them modern: the enormity and concentration of the problems due to accelerated expansion. This is the main platform onto which The Endless City is built. A series of essays by theorists and practitioners from cultural, political and academic sectors, the book is intent on confronting these difficulties, exploring every facet of the urban experience from affordable housing in an open economy to civic engagement and diversity. Framing their views around six cities (New York, Shanghai, London, Mexico City, Johannesburg and Berlin), chosen for their continuous rapid growth, the solutions offered are ultimately optimistic attempts to enable change and long-term viability.

The book succeeds in demonstrating how all these cities share progress and decline in seemingly equal measures though rarely implode due to a mutual desire to be “international,” an ambition that fuels their development. As a result, however, architecture across many cities is becoming indistinguishable, less about defining or reflecting the culture in which it is built and more about making it homogeneous. As wealthier local governments open up competitions to international architects in the hopes of attaining a landmark attraction, they risk neglecting local needs and eradicating identity in favour of a global brand.

The volume of facts and imagery here is astonishing. The reader becomes immersed in each city through essays–divided thematically–both factual and passionate. Jose Castillo’s moving “After the Explosion” charts Mexico City as a place that never stood a chance following environmental and industrial accidents, while the people ingeniously rise above their conditions by leading reforms through ground-level communication.

By contributing to the analysis of cities’ economic, architectural, governmental and social structures, the authors allow us to observe how cities and people respond to each other, eliciting anger and relief, frustration and hope. JSB

A Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Montreal

By Nancy Dunton and Helen Malkin. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008.

Authored by Montrealers Nancy Dunton and Helen Malkin, both of whom have past affiliations with the Canadian Centre for Architecture, this guidebook emphasizes the period of building in Montreal from 1983 to the present. Similar to a previously published (1998) guide to Montreal architecture–part of the popular international miniature series published by Ellipsis from the UK–the current guide delivers more bang for the buck through its larger format, full-colour photographs and crisply articulated architectural drawings, along with clear and detailed mapping of all 75 projects covered.

For Dunton and Malkin, the 1983 construction of the seminal Maison Alcan on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal’s downtown core marked a sea change, a shift in attitude with respect to the city wherein a greater public consciousness of Montreal took hold. The increase in number of major architectural competitions and public consultations drastically altered–for the better–the educational and cultural context for the next generation of architects about to graduate, and it is their work that largely constitutes the projects covered in the guide; among them, consistently awardwinning firms such as Atelier Big City, Daoust Lestage, Saia Barbarese Topouzanov, Saucier + Perrotte, and Claude Cormier.

The buildings themselves were selected for their enduring quality–transcending the time period in which they were built–and for the contributions they make to their respective neighbourhoods or quartiers, to public space, and to civic life. But taking the buildings beyond their status as independent examples of good design, the guidebook is subdivided into regions and categories such as downtown, McGill University, Quartier Latin, Plateau Mont-Royal and Notre Dame de Grce, encouraging readers to discover the buildings in the context of neighbourhoods, facilitating a greater understanding and comprehension of the city and its constituent parts. The approach incorporates layers of meaning into the exercise, resulting in an experience much greater than the sum of its parts. Towards this goal, the guide’s detailed maps enable readers to plan an ordered exploration of the city. An added bonus is that all listed projects are readily accessible from the city’s excellent public transit system.

Rounding out the offerings are insightful essays by Georges Adamczyk and Ricardo L. Castro, contributing a historical richness and philosophical context to the publication, which culminates in an unequivocally optimistic view towards what is yet to come for the city of Montreal. LJ

Mapping London: Making Sense of the City

By Simon Foxell. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2007.

This rich co
llection of over 150 maps of London spans over six centuries–from the 1500s to the present, from which a highly compelling story of this great city unfurls. Reduced to its most elemental two-dimensional representation, London is recognizable to a great many of us by the Thames that snakes its way through the city’s densely concentrated network of streets. But through the array of cartographic documents lovingly researched and compiled by architect Simon Foxell, London is presented in a variety of contexts: historical, social and political.

Organized into four major parts–London Change and Growth, Serving the City, Living in the City, and Imagining London, Mapping London reminds us of key historic events through the infinite variety of map types contained within. In one section, plans for rebuilding parts of London after the Great Fire of 1666 are presented, and in the “Health, Water and Waste” section, a map from 1855 illustrates the concentration of cholera cases during the city’s outbreak the previous year. Reminders of more recent historical events are also contained within the collection: under the theme of attack and defence, a post-World War II map from 1945 surveys bomb damage in central London.

Certain maps have embedded themselves in our collective consciousness: here, readers are treated to various iterations of the appealingly colourful London Underground subway map. Equally iconic is the Monopoly board that generations have come to know and love–though most of us are familiar with the original American game, the London version has been in existence since the 1930s, and as such, the desirability of pricey real estate in such districts as Mayfair, Park Lane and Bond Street is reinforced in play as in life.

Significant emphasis is placed on planning the city over the centuries–right up to present day. Contemporary figures like Rem Koolhaas and Richard Rogers make the cut, and we are reminded of their late-20th century imaginings of London in the former’s dystopic vision of the city in Delirious New York (1975) and the latter’s decidedly more optimistic London as it Could Be (1986), a scheme that proposes linkages of urban spaces and pedestrian connections. Most recently, Terry Farrell’s Thames Gateway Vision (2003) aims to accommodate the densification of the underpopulated areas east of the city.

Mapping London is an important historical journey, a captivating portrait that details–from so many perspectives–the evolution of one of the most fascinating cities in the world. LJ